By Richard Foss
Ambitious artists have agendas – they want you to think in a different way about what you perceive. Chefs have an advantage over some other creators, in that they can have a continuing dialogue with those who experience their work.
A finished artwork can’t usually be changed, but chefs and musicians can alter their performance the next time.
To explore this notion, I contacted four high-profile chefs who recently opened restaurants on the Westside to ask a few questions about their experiences.
Master of classics on Olympic
Chef Resul Rasallat has an impressive resume – he has cooked at L’Orangerie, The George V in Paris and other celebrated establishments. His restaurant Tapenade in West Los Angeles is named after a rustic olive dip, but the menu includes dishes of baroque complexity.
Rasallat expected that some guests might prefer simple cooking, but not that one item would outsell everything else.
“The surprise was hen-of-the-wood mushrooms with polenta and truffle oil,” he said. “I thought I would sell a few orders a week, but sometimes I have sixty guests and they are on every table. It is soft with a creamy consistency, with the earthy mushrooms, and everybody who tries it wants it again.”
When asked whether he has changed his offerings to suit his clientele, Rasallat countered that he wants to educate his customers instead.
“I serve what I like, and people who come here are appreciating my best dishes. I give tastes of everything to my staff, and they interact with the customers and tell them what I have that fits their tastes.”
Asked what element Tapenade brings to the local dining community, Rasallat gave a surprising answer: making solo diners, especially those on a budget, feel welcome.
“If you are single, you can spend more money dining at home than here. Some restaurateurs don’t want somebody who would order an eight-dollar starter and a glass of wine, or just a dessert – they say, this is not a cafeteria. I want those people to feel as welcome as anybody who is spending the top dollar. They don’t have to spend $50 for us to think they are a great customer.”
Many chefs open with a simple operation and add events and special dinners later. Rasallat is no exception, and he has ambitious plans.
“I would like to invite three chefs here and cook with them, and serve like a family dinner, all the dishes out to share. It would be casual and fun – you’re not glued to your seat for five hours, you can walk around and meet people. Make it more comfortable, more approachable, so they enjoy the whole experience.”
The vegan gourmet
“The big surprise in Santa Monica was that the most adventurous items were the most popular,” mused Matthew Kenney of MAKE at Santa Monica Place. “I expected that people would go for the classic dishes that I had cooked in the past. We thought we’d sell a lot of heirloom tomato lasagna, but they embraced contemporary dishes like kimchi dumplings. It’s one of my favorite dishes, but I didn’t expect it to become a bestseller.”
When Kenney says “classic,” he doesn’t necessarily mean what other chefs would. He is arguably the world’s leading raw food chef and the author of several cookbooks, and received awards from the James Beard Foundation and Food & Wine Magazine. Kenney has years of experience making vegan food accessible, but understands that not everybody will understand.
“We’ve had people who don’t get it, but we don’t preach to them,” he said. “We don’t emphasize health or nutrition or calories even though those are advantages of this cuisine. We believe that the most healthful foods are also the most flavorful and the most beautiful, and our goal is to help people embrace gourmet cuisine that also makes them feel good.
Though he visited Santa Monica for extended periods before opening the restaurant, Kenney never lived here until recently. Still, he believes he has found the pulse of the community and has nothing but praise for his clientele.
“The Santa Monica dining crowd has been the nicest, most open-minded that I have ever come across. They demand interesting flavors and are open to getting them from a plant-based cuisine.”
When asked what he wants to be doing a year from now, Kenney gives an answer that hints at both his ambition and energy.
“We will expand on all of our focus areas – on this restaurant, which is running now and will be even stronger, on education through our cooking school, and we want to broaden our programs for the community. We want to add services, to include cleansing and takeaway foods, and we want to go outside the restaurant with pop-ups and other ways to reach out to people who haven’t experienced anything like this.”
Tower 42 in Playa del Rey is a departure for a neighborhood best known for beachy dives. Michael Thomas’ varied resume includes a stint at French classic Le Bel Age and at the relentlessly experimental Test Kitchen, and he is putting exotic ingredients in familiar dishes.
“I’ve been doing head-to-tail tacos, using heart for instance, and we’ve been selling quite a bit of it,” Thomas said. “One item I didn’t think would be as popular as it turned out to be is the wild game chili – it has antelope and venison from Broken Arrow ranch in Texas. We call it ‘shot and killed it chili.’”
Asked whether he thinks Tower 42 will lead a charge toward other area restaurants upscaling, Thomas rejected the notion.
“We’re not looking to change anything about the neighborhood – we want this to be a comfortable place for the locals. We still have simple dishes, a good filet and rainbow trout. We’ll offer specials and watch to see which move, and I’ll put some of them on the menu. We have a Serrano and maple brined pork belly, and we do a ‘breakfast for dinner’ – we ran it as a special, and people kept asking for it.”
Thomas admits that he hopes to broaden the horizons of locals, but says he isn’t trying to challenge their tastes.
“We want to give people what they want – but sometimes they don’t know until they see some option they haven’t considered before. It’s not an agenda, trying to force people to a certain set of ideas, it’s exposing them to ideas that are new but accessible.”
Asked what he wants to be doing differently a year from now, Thomas pondered before replying.
“We’re using a lot of fresh and seasonal ingredients, so I can’t say how much the menu six months or a year from now will resemble what we’re currently serving. I want to start hosting wine dinners, perhaps some beer dinners and a bourbon dinner. Craft beers are incredibly popular, and I’d like to get the makers here and experiment with pairings.”
Pacific Avenue pioneer
“On Abbot Kinney (Boulevard) you can get fantastic food at high prices, and at the (Venice) Boardwalk you can get good everyday food at places like Fig and Hinano’s. We want to be a place that can be a special occasion for a blue collar worker. When I came to this community I worked at all those nice restaurants, but I couldn’t afford to eat at them.”
Jesse Barber, whose resume includes training with Thomas Keller at French Laundry, left his position at Tasting Kitchen on Abbot Kinney in Venice to open Barnyard in a cottage on Pacific Avenue. The previous tenant served simple breakfasts to a local crowd, and Barber wants to keep that audience, albeit with more interesting food. Still, he wasn’t prepared for the positive reaction to the most challenging item on his menu.
“We have a braised baby octopus dish with pickled chilies and fresh garbanzo beans. I really liked it but it’s quite spicy, and I didn’t expect it to sell. I have other things on the menu like ribs, fish, and pastas, and I figured those would move like crazy. Instead, the octopus took off – sometimes I sell 20 a night.”
Though his previous employer is less than half a mile away, Barber has found that his new clientele does not have the same tastes.
“Venice has a strange mix of people, many of them sophisticated but budget-conscious. I used to sell a lot of high-end wines while I was at Tasting Kitchen. Here on Pacific, we sell a ton of our mid-range wines – they’re good ones, but from less prestigious producers.”
Barber, who runs the restaurant with his wife, Celia, has already started an ambitious schedule of events.
“We have had wine dinners, and more are coming up, and I’m involved with local charity events. The only thing I want to be doing in a year that I’m not doing now is not working a hundred hours a week.”
Tapenade, 11301 W. Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles. Tapenade.la. (310) 312-6233
M.A.K.E., 395 Santa Monica Place, #333, Santa Monica. www.matthewkenneycuisine.com. (310) 394-7046
Tower 42, 119 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey. www.tower-42.com. (310) 823-6800
Barnyard, 1715 Pacific Ave., Venice. Barnyardvenice.com. (310) 581-1015